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It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

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kingrat
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It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby kingrat » April 30th, 2013, 7:25 pm

What an inspired idea for TCM to invite Max von Sydow to the festival, show two of his films, and interview him. When he was introduced at the interview, he received a long ovation from the packed room. He began by saying, “It’s very moving to be here.” We thought so, too. [My notes combine the afternoon interview by Leonard Maltin and the introduction to The Seventh Seal by Ben Mankiewicz.]

Among the American film actors he admired were Spencer Tracy (he mentioned Captains Courageous), Gary Cooper, and later John Wayne. Leslie Howard was a great hero during the war because he had great lines to put down the Nazis.

MVS’ family had no interest in acting or theater, but not far away from where they lived in southern Sweden was a municipal theater. His high school took the students to the theater to see classic plays. Films seemed too far away, but theater was a possibility. After he had worked for a couple of years as an actor in southern Sweden, he came to the theater where Ingmar Bergman directed. He did two plays in one season, and then Bergman asked him to do The Seventh Seal. It was usual for Bergman to use some of his theater actors in the film he would make during the summer. Moving from theater to film was not a difficult transition for Max, but he said that recently he saw the film again and was aware of his more theatrical approach.

As a director, Bergman was no different in the theater or on film. He had a very solid cultural and musical upbringing. He made the actors come close to their characters; especially on stage, he helped the actors make the familiar characters of the classics human. Bergman said that he was married to Thalia, goddess of theater, but his mistress was the movies. He had a great ability to make his actors love and be enthusiastic about the story. Bergman was not somber during the making of The Seventh Seal, though “a little different from the average Mr. Sweden”—quick, a bit sarcastic at times, not at all demonic. He had a wonderful sense of humor, but was very strict about demanding total silence during rehearsals. Max was disappointed that Bergman never asked him to be in any of his comedies.

The Seventh Seal was based on an early play by Bergman, The Wood Paintings, a series of monologues based on the paintings found in medieval churches in southern Sweden. The paintings were very naïve, sometimes rather funny, and Bergman used that. Bergman’s play was not really that good. Originally, Bergman asked him to play the clown, whom he described as a Picasso blue period clown. This excited Max. [It was not clear to me if the clown would be Jos the young father or Swat the older actor or a character which existed in the original play.] Later Bergman said he had changed his mind and wanted Max to play the knight. Max was disappointed, because in the play the knight had had his tongue cut out during the Crusades. He commented wryly that if he’d had any idea how powerful a non-speaking character in a film could be, he wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Bergman was also inspired by Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Next, he talked about The Greatest Story Ever Told (too much to suit my buddy lzcutter). George Stevens said he wanted the film to be about Jesus the man, and Max became very interested and excited about the possibilities of playing this Jesus. He said that he doesn’t now think that the film got that. At first he was not happy about the idea of doing the film, but a prominent agent named Paul Conyer (this may not be the right spelling) was insistent. He had had no agent in Sweden. He had to sign an agreement to do seven films in order to get the part.

Stevens invited him to visit for a week to discuss the project. It was February. California must have seemed very appealing after the Swedish winter. Stevens showed him sketches for sets and costumes. Max was impressed that the poet Carl Sandburg, a Swedish immigrant, would be working on the script; Stevens and Sandburg spoke on the phone while Max was there.

Stevens worked slowly and kept the rushes secret from the producers. Typically, Stevens would set up a long shot, then move somewhat closer for the next shot, and so on, until he had close-ups of everyone from everyone else’s point of view. Then would begin the process all over again with the same scene shot against a different background. Because the film was taking so long, David Lean was called in to shoot in the studio while Stevens was at work in the Utah desert. Max joked that he was “very proud of doing the lead with John Wayne in a little role.” As the production went on, he became worried because he had contracts with theaters back in Sweden.

As an actor, he wants to understand what the director wants from the character, and then he wants to have freedom. He directed one film and enjoyed it, but he’s really an actor. Maybe if he had been younger he would have tried again. The process of directing a film goes on so long.

It is partly true that he played Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon to amuse his grandchild, but Flash Gordon had been a childhood cartoon hero. He had been offered the part of Dr. No but turned it down. Later he did play a villain in a James Bond movie, Blofeld in Never Say Never Again. Blofeld was a tough part. In the first scene he had to give complicated financial instructions to his villain colleagues, all the while stroking an Angora kitten, which was sweet but not interested in film acting. He was letter perfect on the first take, but not the cat. On take 26, “finally the cat was brilliant.” Most of this scene was cut.

The Exorcist was “a remarkable film.” When they sent him the book, he thought they wanted him to play the young priest. It took four hours of makeup every morning to turn him into the old priest. He joked that “Today it would be easier.” Richard Smith was a wonderful makeup man. William Friedkin was a wonderful director, imaginative, and he knew the value of publicity, like hinting that all kinds of strange things were happening on the set.

The screenplay of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly moved him so much that he immediately wrote a fan letter to Ronald Harwood, the author.

Working with Woody Allen on Hannah and Her Sisters was a joy. He greatly admires Woody Allen, whose camera work is always interesting. Woody was nervous about working with Max because Bergman is one of the filmmakers he admires most, and the first day on the set Max would start over to introduce himself, but Woody was so nervous, he would disappear.

Steven Spielberg is a master, really good, a monument, and MvS would love to work with him again. The same is true of Scorsese. The film which means the most to him, however, is Pelle the Conqueror. It’s rare that even a leading part gives an actor the opportunity to do so many things.

He wasn’t Sydney Pollack’s first choice to play the assassin in Three Days of the Condor. By the way, Condor is one of Ben Mankiewicz’s top ten favorite films. Ben asked if Max thought Robert Redford is an underrated actor, and he agreed. Max said that Redford had been so successful that people decided to take him down a bit in Condor.

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby CineMaven » April 30th, 2013, 7:40 pm

Hi there Brother Rat. Great review and very clever subject line! I didn't see his interviews, but you do capture it all.
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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby moira finnie » May 1st, 2013, 6:11 am

Thank you so much for this wonderful compilation of Ming the Merciless' Max von Sydow's insightful remarks...you really conveyed the range of his experiences and the humor of the man brilliantly. Something tells me that MvS did not speak about Three Days of the Condor long enough for a certain Ms. Cutter, no?!

I particularly loved the understatement about Bergman noting that he was “a little different from the average Mr. Sweden,” which made me giggle. I think that the agent you mentioned as Paul Conyer may actually have been Paul Kohner, a Czech-born agent who influenced films from the silents to the eighties, representing everyone from Greta Garbo to Liv Ullmann. In his spare time Kohner was married to silent actress Lupita Tovar---who is still living at 113!--and began a show biz dynasty, fathering actress Susan Kohner, producer Pancho Kohner. Susan Kohner's sons Paul and Chris Weitz have also been highly successful as filmmakers today (About a Boy, A Single Man and many more).
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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby JackFavell » May 1st, 2013, 6:18 am

Ha! I've just gotten up and had a good laugh at your title! Hilarious! Had to come over and check it out. Now to read the post... :D

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby JackFavell » May 1st, 2013, 7:38 am

Thanks for going into such depth! A great writeup, kingrat!

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby MikeBSG » May 1st, 2013, 7:59 am

Thanks for the title and the post. Very enjoyable and informative reading.

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » May 1st, 2013, 11:59 am

David,
Fabulous recap of MVS' interview.

His inflection on the statement, "finally the cat got it right" was my favorite comment that he made. It got a big laugh.

Such a multi-layered interview of a complex artist. I relished that moment, and I am so happy your notes were so complete!

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby sandykaypax » May 1st, 2013, 1:47 pm

Thanks for posting this! I really didn't know much about Max von Sydow. Wish I could've been there to see him.

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Re: It's a Max Max Max von Sydow World

Postby kingrat » May 1st, 2013, 2:35 pm

Moira, thank you for supplying Paul Kohner's actual name. Susan Kohner's father! What an interesting life.

Max von Sydow appeared to be in reasonably good health. He did say that he is hard of hearing, and he needed to have some questions repeated.


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